Handicapping the Governor’s Race

My friend Curtis hates it when people tell him they hate politics. He corrects them without a pause. “How do you feel about stop signs?” he snarls, “Because you can’t have one without the other. Every stop sign has a rule or a hearing behind it — in other words, politics.”

Curtis has never been to Eugene. If he ever comes, I’ll show him our stop signs. “STOP, except bicycles” — “Right Turn Allowed Without Stopping” — even “Left Turn Allowed Without Stopping” (at 3rd and Mill). When a place makes stop signs complicated, guess what the politics are like?

A year from now, Oregonians will be choosing a new governor. No Republicans have had statewide success in recent memory, so the race likely will be decided in the Democratic primary.

John Kitzhaber, our most recent former governor has announced his candidacy. Yesterday he drew his first official challenger, former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury. Bradbury will re-announce his decision today in smaller cities across the state, including Eugene.

The race soon could become more complicated, but first let’s compare these two. Former governor John Kitzhaber claims he’s being drawn back to Salem by a post-partisan vision, but if you measure partisanship by the number of vetoes a governor sticks to a legislature of the opposing party, Kitzhaber holds the record with 202 vetoes, earning him a hyper-partisan nickname of Dr. No.

Does his post-partisan vision have anything to do with a now-Democratic supermajority in the state legislature? Will this vision fade or blur if the Dems lose seats in Salem?

Bradbury’s people turn the tables on Kitzhaber’s claim and insist that the best recent example of post-partisanship in Oregon can be found in the structure of the state’s watershed councils, bringing together ranchers and environmentalists, liberals and conservatives, forcing them to work together to share resources and solve problems locally. That work was done in 1991, while Kitzhaber was on an earlier hiatus from elected office. Kitzhaber later endorsed the model, because he adapted it to try to save salmon from an endangered species listing.

What we don’t know about Kitzhaber is how he’ll respond to a tough primary campaign. He’s never had a strong statewide challenger to his political left. Does Kitzhaber have a glass jaw? Can he take a rough-and-tumble campaign from another Democrat?

Which brings us to Peter DeFazio. Will he or won’t he?

He’s endured the worst of all possible commutes for 20 years, hoping to someday get a chairmanship that will allow him to make a real difference. Transportation has become his bailiwick of choice, but there’s a problem with his promotion path.

Transportation Committee chair Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn) is considering retirement, but DeFazio is not next in line. Waiting has gotten DeFazio this far, but not much further. Nick Rahall (D-WV) has been in Congress 10 years longer than DeFazio. Rahall is also two years younger than DeFazio, so two retirements are not in the offing. Rahall has said he will give up his chairmanship of the Natural Resources Committee to take over Transportation instead. DeFazio doesn’t want to lead Natural Resources, because Oregon’s 4th District is split on all the issues that committee oversees.

DeFazio also wants to get the current transportation bill voted on this year, but the White House is hoping for a delay. DeFazio wants to bring home the jobs, but the leadership is afraid of more red ink. They want to downplay the deficit until health care reform passes.

Unfortunately for DeFazio, his principled stand against the $700 billion bailout has earned him some cold shoulders at the White House. With his transportation bill stuck in committee, DeFazio could stay where he is to get his bill a fair hearing. Or he could walk away from a process that resists big ideas.

DeFazio and Kitzhaber both seem interested in bringing big ideas — and tough choices — to Oregonians. Tom McCall, Act 2. Bradbury is likely to run a more nuts-and-bolts campaign. Kulongoski, continued.

These candidates soon will be racing at full speed. Will Oregonians contemplate a left turn without stopping? That seems normal in Eugene.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) considers himself a libertarian but is registered as a Democrat, so he can vote in primaries. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.